People don't typically dispose of cleaning products - they use them up. Empty packages can then be recycled or discarded with other household waste. Unused amounts of cleaning products can generally be safely disposed of down the drain or in the trash. That's not the case with all products found around the home. For those products that do require special handling, such as solvent-based paints, used motor oil and certain pesticides, household hazardous waste collection programs are an important resource. However, to include household cleaning products in these programs is unnecessary and places an additional burden and expense on communities and individuals.
Do I need to save my cleaning products for hazardous waste collection days?
Generally, no. Cleaning products do not typically contain ingredients that would harm the environment in the quantities that are disposed of by households. The vast majority of cleaning products are water soluble and are formulated for safe disposal in either municipal or home wastewater treatment systems. Household hazardous waste programs are intended to handle products that may cause a problem if disposed of by common methods, such as down the drain or in the trash.
What's the best way to dispose of a household cleaning product?
The way that makes the best environmental and economic sense is to use it up! If you can't, consider giving the product to a friend or organization that can. Just be sure to keep the product in its original container with the label intact.
Most household cleaning products are designed to go down the drain as part of normal usage. They are then treated by the same systems that treat other wastes from your home.
What should I do if I can't use the product up or give it away?
The key to smart use and disposal of any cleaning product is to read the label and follow the directions. If there are no special disposal instructions on the label, then thinking about how you use the product will help you make the right decision.
For example, water soluble products (those mixed with water for cleaning), such as laundry and dishwashing detergents; multi-surface cleaners; bleaches; disinfectant cleaners; and liquid metal cleaners/polishes, drain openers and toilet bowl cleaners, can be flushed down the drain with running water. Powders should be disposed of in small quantities at a time so they don't form lumps in the drain. Solid cleaning products, such as bar soaps, toilet bowl cleaners and soap scouring pads, can be safely disposed of in the trash. So can aerosol cans with product left in them. Remember, just as you shouldn't mix cleaning products together when using them, you shouldn't mix unused products during disposal.
For disposal recommendations on other products, such as oven cleaners, crystal drain openers and furniture polishes, call the manufacturer's toll-free number or check with your local waste disposal facility.
How widespread is the recycling of plastic cleaning product bottles?
Since 1989, plastic packaging recycling has increased nearly three-fold. Currently, more than 6,600 communities nationwide collect plastic bottles. Your local recycling coordinator is the best source of information on what's being collected in your community. Cleaning product manufacturers generally use high-density polyethylene (HDPE) and polyethylene terephthalate (PET), the two most commonly collected and recycled plastics.
The rate of recycling for HDPE clear and colored bottles continues to grow, to more than 400 million pounds recycled in 1993 from 358 million pounds in 1992, an 11% increase. PET post-consumer packaging also increased 11% in the same year, up to 448 million pounds in 1993, compared to 402 million in 1992.
Is disposing of cleaning products down the drain safe?
Under typical household use and disposal conditions, cleaning products won't eliminate the bacteria that make properly maintained septic tank systems work effectively.
Water-soluble cleaning products are designed to be compatible with a wide variety of wastewater treatment systems, including the septic tank systems used by some 30% of U.S. households. For example, research has shown that a homeowner could pour up to a gallon of laundry bleach or disinfectant into a standard septic tank system in one day and not destroy the septic tank's bacteria. A gallon of bleach represents more than 15 wash loads per day.
Are cleaning product packages a major contributor to solid waste problems?
Less than one percent of our nation's garbage that comes from consumer product packaging can be attributed to cleaning products.
And the manufacturers of cleaning products continue to look for ways to make that contribution even lower. In fact, they've been widely recognized for technical innovations in achieving the three R's of good solid waste management - material reduction, reuse and recycling - without compromising package safety and product integrity.
For example, ultra or concentrated formulas of laundry, dishwashing and hard surface cleaning products use between 50% and 60% less packaging than regular concentrations. Refill systems for laundry detergents, fabric softeners, glass cleaners and all-purpose cleaners, which come without pouring handles/spouts or measuring caps, also reduce packaging use. Combination products, like detergents with built-in bleaching agents or fabric softeners, eliminate the need to purchase two packaged products.
Manufacturers of soaps and detergents have encouraged recycling programs by using plastics that are widely recycled and by using recycled materials in packaging, helping to create end uses and close the recycling loop. For example, plastic bottles for most laundry, dishwashing and household cleaning products contain between 25% to 100% recycled resin and often can be recycled again after use. Most paperboard used for cleaning product containers is made from recycled paper. And most of the paperboard and corrugated boxes used to ship cleaning products to stores can be recycled in OCC (old corrugated cardboard) or mixed waste paper programs. As for aerosols, the steel cans used to dispense some cleaning products contain 25% recycled steel content.
What about recycling aerosol cans?
A growing number of communities accept empty steel aerosol cans as part of their recycling program. Read the disposal instructions on the can and check with your local recycling coordinator for details.